This week, I drove into Charleston, West Virginia, feeling off. Being one of the few metropolitan areas ASP is located in, I had done some research before arriving. I had read the US Census data that West Virginia has lost a higher percentage of its residents than any other state in the nation. I had read that young people were leaving Charleston in droves, seeking economic opportunity elsewhere. Driving in, the sky was overcast and everything looked gloomy and I let it color my perspective before I had even put my feet on the ground.
On the West Side, you could look up at the mountains, see the mansions dotting its ridge, and feel jaded. There was the kind of heat that clears your head of all thoughts except for a shower and a bed. I sat down to talk with Rick, a homeowner here. Deep into our conversation, I asked him some of the questions I had been pawing over in my head:
“How have you seen Charleston change over the past couple of years?”
“I’ve seen it change a lot,” he replied, “there used to be a culture. There used to be a pulse. But young people have been moving out. They go off to college and don’t come back.”
“How do you feel about this shift?” I asked.
“It’s a tricky situation. You want the best for your kids, but if they all leave who will keep this town going? And what will there be for those who stay?”
But Rick wasn’t content with letting a bad thought hang. After a moment, he pointed to young volunteers hard at work on his house. They were spread out: climbing up ladders, cutting wood, drilling holes, smiling, and laughing the whole way. And he said,
“Don’t forget. They’re angels. Every one of them.”
The words hung in the air, and we both leaned back to watch them work. Rick was right. For all the time I had spent reading studies on demographics and population shifts, the youth was here. The volunteers weren’t natives of Charleston, granted, but their energy and vibrance had pushed us into awed silence, a wordless prayer, a still communion. They were hope.
The humility of the present welled within me, and that funny word, perspective, rolled around again. It took eight words from Rick to change my outlook. Eight words to remind me that sometimes the answer you were looking for was right in front of you the whole time. You just gotta name it.
Story Gathering Intern